By Sydney Freedberg, Scilla Alecci, Will Fitzgibbon, Douglas Dalby and Delphine Reuter | 20 January 2020
ISABEL dos Santos made a fortune at the expense of the Angolan people, a leak reveals.
She spun a story the world wanted to believe: a self-made billionaire who had risen in a male-dominated business world in an African country ravaged by civil war and poverty.
In public appearances in 2017, Isabel dos Santos, then head of Angola’s giant state oil company, Sonangol Group, mingled with Hollywood legends and charmed oil tycoons with tales of hard work and accomplishment.
Wearing her trademark black blazer at the London Business School, the then 44-year-old chairwoman told a packed audience that leaders should be chosen on their merits.
“I’ve been managing companies for a long time, starting them from small, building them up, going through every single stage of what it takes for a company to be successful,” she said.
Left unmentioned in London: That she had been installed in the top job at Sonangol by her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, the long-time Angolan autocrat.
That over the years he had awarded her companies public contracts, tax breaks, telecom licences and diamond-mining rights.
Luanda Leaks, a new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 36 media partners, exposes two decades of unscrupulous deals that made Dos Santos Africa’s wealthiest woman.
Based on more than 715 000 confidential financial and business records and hundreds of interviews, Luanda Leaks offers a case study of a growing global problem: Thieving rulers, often called kleptocrats, and their family members and associates are moving ill-gotten public money to offshore secrecy jurisdictions, often with the help of prominent Western firms.
From there, the money is used to buy properties, businesses and other valuable assets, or it is simply hidden away, safe from tax authorities and criminal investigators.
“The movement of dirty money through shell companies into the international financial system to be laundered, recycled, and deployed for political influence is accelerating,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
The Luanda Leaks documents were provided to ICIJ by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, a Paris-based advocacy group.
ICIJ found that Dos Santos, her husband and their intermediaries built a business empire with more than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries, including at least 94 tax havens like Malta, Mauritius and Hong Kong.
Over the past decade, these companies got consulting jobs, loans, public works contracts and licences worth billions of dollars from the Angolan government.
Dos Santos and her husband used their shell companies to avoid scrutiny and invest in real estate, energy and media businesses.
In one case identified by ICIJ, thousands of families were forcibly evicted from their Luanda homes on land that was part of a redevelopment project involving a Dos Santos company.
They also secured large stakes in banks, allowing them to finance this empire even as other financial institutions backed away amid concerns about Dos Santos’ ties to the Angolan state.
Angolan government officials told ICIJ that they are investigating whether Dos Santos and associates looted hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s oil and diamond-trading companies.
That includes a US$38 million payment in November 2017 from Sonangol to a bank account in Dubai controlled by a Dos Santos associate, a transfer ordered hours after Angola’s new president fired her from her job as head of the state oil company.
The officials also said that public contracts awarded by her father’s regime to her companies were inflated by more than US$1 billion.
In December, two weeks after ICIJ questioned Angola’s government about Dos Santos’ business dealings, an Angolan court froze her major assets, including banks, a telecom company and a brewery.
The government is trying to recover US$1,1 billion that it says is owed by Dos Santos, her husband and a close associate of the couple.
Dos Santos and her husband denied wrongdoing and said they did not profit from political connections. Her lawyers denied any wrongdoing, including any allegations of looting, fraud, contract overcharging and other misconduct.
The law firm said Dos Santos did not use offshore vehicles to avoid paying taxes.
In recent interviews, Dos Santos, whose fortune is estimated at about US$2 billion, said the government is on a “witch-hunt” against her family.
Her husband, Dokolo, told Radio France Internationale, one of ICIJ’s partners in France, that the Angolan government is wrongfully targeting him and his wife.
“They want to blame us for all the corruption and bankruptcy in Angola,” Dokolo said. Dos Santos’ father and Angola’s former president, José Eduardo, did not respond to requests for comment.
Isabel dos Santos was born on 1 April 1973 in the Azerbaijan oil town, Baku, where her parents met while attending a state university devoted to oil and chemistry.
Her Russian mother, Tatiana Kukanova, was studying geology. Her father – the future Angolan president and “Comrade Number One” – was then an exiled guerilla leader in the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
José Eduardo quickly rose through the ranks of the now-ruling MPLA.
The death of Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, propelled the former guerilla fighter Eduardo to power in 1979.
José Eduardo moved swiftly to cement control, placing friends in key posts.
The marriage to Kukanova didn’t last. In 1978, Dos Santos fathered a son, José Filomeno, in a separate relationship.
The following year, Kukanova moved with her daughter to London. Isabel spent her teens attending an elite prep school and went on to King’s College London, where she received an engineering degree. Her financial managers, the leaked documents show, later referred to her as “The Engineer.”
In 1992, president Dos Santos changed the Angolan constitution to say the president could not be prosecuted for any official actions “except in the event of bribery or treason to the motherland.”
Dos Santos treated Angola “like his personal farm,” Salvador Freire, a leading human rights lawyer in Luanda, told ICIJ.
In 1999, the president set up the Angola Selling Corp. with an exclusive licence to market Angolan diamonds, another pillar of the country’s economy.
He gave a separate company — controlled by Isabel Dos Santos and her mother — a 24,5% share in Angola Selling Corp.
A year later, the Dos Santos government issued a hugely valuable mobile telecommunications licence, one of the country’s first, to a company called Unitel. Among its owners and founders: Isabel dos Santos.
In December 2002, hundreds of guests crowded into a 17th-century Luanda cathedral to witness the wedding of Isabel, then 29, to Sindika Dokolo, age 30, a wealthy Congolese businessman and art collector.
Her father’s connections opened doors to one of her most important business relationships: Portuguese billionaire Américo Amorim.
With an oil boom creating demand for new financial institutions, Amorim and the president’s daughter teamed up to launch Banco BIC SA in 2005.
It is now one of the largest banks in Angola, with US$4,2 billion in assets.
The Amorim-Sonangol joint venture named Dokolo to its board.
A year later, Sonangol sold 40% of its stake in the joint venture to Dokolo’s Swiss company, Exem Holding AG.
The purchase price was US$99 million, but Sonangol agreed to lend Exem most of the money needed to complete the sale, receiving just US$15 million up front.
Dokolo said the loan was fully repaid in 2017. Sonangol said it rejected the repayment offered in Angolan currency as a violation of the deal. It considers the balance outstanding.
Sonangol didn’t explain why it sold the stake in the lucrative joint-venture to the then-president’s son-in-law. Today the stake is worth about US$800 million.
Isabel dos Santos’ fortune was growing. Her advisers looked for ways to protect it.
In 2009, her business empire had expanded to include stakes in Portuguese banks and media companies, which provided her with millions of dollars in dividends.
Over the coming decade, the Dos Santos team would set up shell companies in many tax havens but quickly settled on a favourite: Malta.
The tiny Mediterranean nation is notorious for lax enforcement of laws against money laundering.
By March 2013, they had created or invested in at least 94 companies in 19 countries. A third of these were shell companies.
That month, Isabel dos Santos was named to Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List. Among the people listed, she was the youngest from Africa and Africa’s only woman.
By the time she was 40, Dos Santos had accumulated major shareholdings in media, banking, energy, retail and more.
She owned 25% of Unitel, the mobile phone company that had turned into a cash machine. From 2006 to 2015, it would pay out more than US$5 billion in dividends to shareholders, ICIJ calculated.
She owned stakes in two Portuguese banks, Banco BIC and Banco BPI, a communications group called ZON Multimédia and its affiliate, ZAP, a satellite TV service.
She controlled the country’s biggest cement producer, Nova Cimangola.
Dos Santos faced questions in 2013 about a massive transfer of money.
Unitel had made US$460 million in loans the previous year to a Dutch shell company called Unitel International Holdings, later revealed to be owned by Dos Santos.
Luis Pacheco de Melo, a representative of PT Ventures, one of four partners in Unitel, asked at a shareholders meeting whether the board of directors had signed off the deal.
An agent in charge of registering Mauritius-based companies for Dos Santos’ telecom business found information about her “source of wealth” missing from the documents.
Auditors for the Maltese company could not find agreements for millions of dollars in loans from the Angolan government to Dokolo’s luxury jewellery company.
On the Isle of Man, John Murphy, a local director for a shell company used to acquire London real estate, discovered a mysterious US$50 million credit on its bank statement. “It cause[s] us serious concern,” Murphy said in an August 2015 email to a Dos Santos attorney.
He resigned soon afterwards.
After 35 years in power, president dos Santos signalled that he would soon step down.
With retirement looming, the president made bold moves that would benefit his daughter:
His administration awarded an array of public works contracts, saying it hoped to boost employment and put money in the pockets of Angolans.
The main beneficiaries were Isabel dos Santos’ businesses or the large or politically connected firms and banks operating with her.
Dos Santos’ lawyers say all contracts were awarded on merit.
From her seat in the VIP section, Dos Santos watched as her father walked a red carpet in Luanda’s Republic Square.
In September 2017, he handed over power at the inauguration of his hand-picked successor, João Lourenço.
A former defence minister, Lourenço took office with a vow to tackle corruption. The Dos Santos era was rapidly coming to a close.
Lourenço fired Isabel as head of Sonangol on 15 November 2017.
Angolan prosecutors say they have uncovered 31 companies with links to Dos Santos outside Angola, prosecutors said.
ICIJ found many more. Since 1992, Dos Santos and her husband have created or invested in at least 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries.
Isabel dos Santos’ father has also not been named.
The family says it no longer feels at home in Angola. José Eduardo dos Santos lives in a heavily guarded compound in Barcelona. Isabel has moved back to London, where her children attend school.
Dos Santos says she cannot go back because she fears for her safety and that she remains committed to Angola.